What can you do to help yourself succeed? Most people have tried using some of the better-known time-management techniques, such as making short to-do lists, or plotting opportunities along the independent dimensions of urgency and importance. Making a short list can help you to maintain focus on your priorities. Using the urgency-importance matrix allows you to visualize things that are pressing but insignificant; then you can drop those activities.
Such tools are certainly useful, but what really makes a difference is the feeling you have about what you're doing. If you don't have a sense of choice about your work, or if your ego is at stake, techniques won't do much good. Let's take a closer look at this issue.
How's Your Attitude?
Psychologists such as Carol Dweck tell us that people have two opposing attitudes toward any given goal:
- We may strive to achieve an outcome as a way of demonstrating current capacity. For example, we sometimes view getting ahead at work as a way of showing that we're smarter than other people. This attitude is said to be performance-oriented.
- On the other hand, we might set out to achieve a goal with the view that we can learn to "do what it takes." If we stumble a little on the way, it simply means that we haven't learned everything. And reaching the end says nothing about our capacity; it's just the result of steady work. This kind of thinking constitutes a learning-oriented attitude.
No matter what time management tools you put to work for you, if you have a performance-oriented attitude, you'll shrink from the prospect of failure. That's because you interpret a bad outcome to mean that you actually don't possess the capacity you were trying to show off.
People with this mindset either give up when faced with obstacles, or they put things off. Studies show that the number one cause of procrastination is that the person's ego is attached to the outcome. Think of how many people do all the work toward a PhD, only to stop short of completing the dissertation. Have you ever wondered why PhD candidates quit at the point where they have to reveal the most about themselves?
Let's illustrate these concepts with two true stories.
A Learning-Oriented Story
We'll start with Gertrude Boyle, who began life as a German Jew in the 1920s. Her family got away from the Nazis in the nick of time and moved to the west coast of the United States in 1939, when she was 13. Safe in her new country, Gertrude learned English, finished high school, and went on to college in Arizona, where she met her future husband.
Years later, at the age of 47, she was faced with another very difficult situation. Her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her alone with their two children and a small clothing store in dire straits. A housewife up to that point, Gertrude knew absolutely nothing about running a business. On top of that, her husband had just taken out a $150,000 loan, using their home as collateral.
The next few years were turbulent. The store almost went belly-up on several occasions. But Gertrude kept at it, and eventually she grew the business into the publicly traded company known as Columbia Sportswear.
I spoke with Gertrude Boyle about her mindset, to try to gain some insight into what makes the difference between people who generally reach their goals and those who generally don't. The first thing noteworthy about her thinking: In her late forties, faced with a catastrophe, she didn't view her situation as particularly difficult. Having already lived through a major challenge as a young teenager, she knew the best thing to do was to avoid playing the victim, instead focusing her efforts on what she could do today and tomorrow.
She also took the view that although she understood nothing about business, she could work at it and get the hang of it. Success or failure had nothing to do with her self-image; they were just the outcome of a learning process. When funds were short and banks came after her in the early years, she didn't take it as an indication that she was a loser. It simply meant that she had to learn a little more.
Contrast Gertrude Boyle's case to the following story, and the difference becomes clear.
A Performance-Oriented Story
A brilliant mathematician and software engineer I got to know early in my career, Donald X was definitely born with a talent to solve complex problems. But, curiously, he was always frustrated in his work. All his interactions with people amounted to ego struggles. Because life was a zero-sum game, in any exchange one party was sure to wind up humiliated.
Since everything Donald did was a demonstration of his abilities, the stakes were always high. He was always afraid of not being the smartest guy in the room, so he frequently avoided meetings. He did what psychologists call "self-handicapping": To divert attention from his own perceived failings, he would set up an excuse ahead of time. For example, he would get drunk the night before an important deadline. This would allow him to blame an external factor for failure, which was far safer than the prospect that he actually had less talent than he thought he did.
Redirecting Your Orientation
In a competitive situation, people with performance-oriented attitudes tend not to work as hard as their learning-oriented opponents. They see putting their noses to the grindstone as a sign that they doubt their abilities. Performance-oriented people certainly don't want to give the impression that they can win only through hard work.
Life dealt Gertrude Boyle a less favorable hand than the one Donald X received. She wasn't born with any special talents, and she was faced with greater obstacles. But because she had the right mindset, she wound up winning the game.
If you find yourself thinking more like Donald X than like Gertrude Boyle, start developing a different attitude. Edge yourself in the right direction by making public statements about how you will be learning the necessary skills to accomplish what you set out to do. Play down the role of talent, and avoid making predictions about winning. What you say to other people makes a difference in how tightly your ego is linked to the outcome.
Time management is about making the best use of your most precious resourcetime. When you set out to do something big, first work on your attitude toward your goal. Then look for the tools and techniques to help you get there.